Arts & Culture News

Confessions of Frankie Stiletto, an Inspirational Sword Swallower

Entering through the mouth after being sprayed with mouthwash, a 15” sword goes down into a stomach. More precisely, it goes all the way down the esophagus past the voice box, entering the chest in between the lungs. It even nudges the heart on the way down. Further down, it passes many vital organs, including the liver, before reaching the stomach.

On April 2, Rachael “Frankie Stiletto” Williams set a Guinness World Record for fastest straightjacket escape while sword swallowing in a parking space in front of Curiosities, the antique and collectible mall in Lakewood. Just three years ago, she was a pre-med neuroscience student derailed by a traumatic brain injury.

The injury made it impossible for Williams to drive; she also had memory problems, suffered from vertigo, and fluorescent lighting made her prone to seizures. Keeping track of her progress everyday, she started contact juggling to remap the neurological pathways in her brain. “I started doing experiments with muscle memory and how that improves cognitive function overall,” Williams says.

And this was enough to make her decide to pursue a different career. “Most people would call that a poor life choice,” Williams says. But going the performance route simply seemed better for her health. After months of little or no progress, the patience and practice required for contact juggling and hula hooping dramatically improved her memory.

But this story is much more surprising than that. “We’re talking about conquering fear,” Williams said to the crowd, before putting on the straightjacket. “Whatever you think is unattainable in your heart and mind, it’s not. Don’t let anyone tell you you can’t do something.” And she means it.

Williams started sword swallowing just 18 months ago, when she befriended a sword swallower in Florida. He prefers to remain anonymous, but her story was interesting enough for him to decide to train someone for the first time. Williams admits that she was first horrified by the idea. But as someone trying to make a career as a full-time performer, she needed to stick out.

Williams was taught over the phone and through Facebook Chat. On average, it takes a person 4 to 7 years to become certified by Sword Swallowers Association International, the only organization for sword swallowers. Worried about someone getting hurt, Williams is hesitant to say just how long it took her to become a certified sword swallower. But as far as she knows, no one has learned quicker.

A year ago in Plano, Williams set the record for “Most Catches Juggling Three Balls While Hula Hooping and Swallowing a Sword.” The category had too many variations for Guinness, but is recognized by a competitor, RecordSetters. Williams set the pace with 61 catches in 45 seconds. To set a Guinness World Record, Williams opted for a “simpler” approach by deciding to escape from a straightjacket while sword swallowing in under 2 minutes.
She had been frequenting Curiosities when she started to think it could be a good place to set a world record. “This seems like a weird place,” Williams says. “I like to do weird things.” And it just so happens that Jason Cohen, one of Curiosities’ owners, has a background in sideshow performances. He used to do the bed of nails trick and fire breathing in Deep Ellum back in the mid to late '80s.

“We clicked on that,” Cohen says. “I collect a lot of circus and sideshow stuff.” He also has a large collection of sideshow performance photos dating back to the 19th century. But he spent a few years as a sideshow performer just out of curiosity, no pun intended. “It took one time of me burning myself doing the fire breathing trick and I gave up.”

Before the performance, Cohen pauses for a second and considers what would happen if Williams is impaled to death in a parking space in front of his business. “It would be that much more memorable,” he jokes. But all joking aside: “I feel pretty secure that she knows what she is doing. I’m always a little bit concerned that somebody’s going to get hurt, but she seems to have a pretty good grip.”

In the minutes leading up to swallowing a sword while removing a straightjacket, Williams was nervous, but mainly just about making sure the strict guidelines for setting the record and documenting it were followed. She effortlessly swallows a sword for a timekeeper for a few seconds just to make sure he is trustworthy. A mistake as simple as someone from the crowd walking in front of a cameraman could make the attempt null and void.

Surrounded by a crowd in a parking lot, onlookers were visibly nervous. Some decided to walk away. There were cars driving by, dogs barking, babies crying and people getting as close as possible to take a good look. It wasn’t exactly the most controlled setting. While swallowing a sword, she escaped from the straightjacket in 47.925 seconds. But the only surprising thing was how effortless Williams made it look.  
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Jeremy Hallock

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